Monday 28 November 2011

Gannet colony

Takapu Refuge, Muriwai Regional Park, North Island, New Zealand

This is the only mainland gannet Morus serrator colony in NZ. Here they are perched right by the coast in the most windswept place one could imagine.

A beautiful bird gliding against the wind
They live on the edge of the wind, quoting one display board.
A couple of gannets ready to land 
Note how their forewings are bent.

Close up of the nesting birds.

Each adult is sitting on a nest where they lay one eggs. At this time of the year most of the chicks are a fair size. One can see several on this picture; one more or less in the centre is being fed. The smell emanating from the colony was incredible. More than fishy...

Saturday 26 November 2011

Eucalyptus leaf beetle larvae

Eltham, North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
16 – 22.11.11

Soon after we arrived my eye was caught by something on a leaf of a ghost gum Eucaplytus papuana on the street right by where we were staying. It was a cluster of larvae on what remained of a leaf. Interesting.
After that I watched them regularly. They ate around the clock. When they finished a leaf they moved to a fresh one on the same branch and started feeding from the tip. 
That particular tree seemed to have only one cluster, but another one up the road supported a much bigger colony, it was a different eucalyptus though. It also had a lot of galls.
So I took many pictures and to make things easier I selected just six of them.

Pictures of various Eucalyptus leaf beetle larvae

Top row from the left:
  • Very small larvae, first instar, clustering on a practically finished leaf.
  • Medium sized larvae, second instar, on a bigger portion of a leaf.
  • Same sized larvae, feeding around galls which were quite woody.
Bottom row from the left:
  • Medium sized larvae plus a freshly moulted one being protected by another one.
  • Medium sized larvae being attacked by a spider.
  • Mature larvae, third instar, feeding on a galled leaf. Note their anal secretions.

I have read here  that, as a defence, they produce hydrogen cyanide coupled with toxic eucalyptus oils.
Also they waved their tails around, this to avoid predators like tiny parasitoid wasps laying eggs on them.

Catching a spider attacking a larva during the night was rather exciting. There was another spider about too. The next day the larva was dead, and the rest of that cluster seemed to have vanished completely. Puzzling.
I never saw the eggs or the adults, and I just wish that we stayed longer so that I could follow them up.  All rather frustrating; but perhaps I have got enough material for another traveller’s tale for the Bugclub?

Thursday 24 November 2011

More about possums

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

As we were walking from Flinders Station to the Botanical Gardens we saw many trees with guards: palms, eucalyptus and even oak trees. The guards were either in metal or plastic. See below.

Oak tree with a possum guard
At the Botanical gardens they explained to us that they were possum guards. Possums have become urban animals like many others: racoons, foxes, hedgehogs and stag beetles.
And they are highly unpopular to the point that in the Botanical Gardens possum guards were quite conspicuous. A bit too firm, I thought.

This bad popularity has spread to New Zealand, where we are now.  Here they are considered an introduced pest and I’ve seen a poster about

Possums are eating…
  … our forests
  … our birds
  … our gardens

It advertised traps.
Poor things!

PS: I've now found out that possums were introduced in NZ in 1837 to start a fur industry. This in a country which had only two mammals: two species of bats!
They are selling some nice woolly hats which have possum fur, so the "fur industry" isn't dead... But now there are 70 million possums roaming the islands...

A koala

Healesville Sanctuary, near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

I thought that some people might like to see a picture of a Koala even though it was taken in captivity.
Koalas are the most expensive animals to keep in Healesville. They eat only fresh eucalyptus leaves, not all of them. As they are pretty indigestible the poor things take their time digesting the stuff, they go into a kind of deep sleep. This particular one happen to be alert. Enjoy!

Koala with its eyes open

Saturday 19 November 2011

Long-necked turtles

Healesville Sanctuary, near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Count the turtles on the picture below.

Pond life
When I took this shot I saw only one long-necked turtle. We were out looking for them and I was very pleased when I spotted one, sunning itself on a rock, I thought.
So, camera in hand, I started taking shots from a fairly obscured place then moved along to a better standpoint. While I was concentrating on the shots I heard a school teacher behind me: "Do you think that it is afraid of that bird?".
The answer was "Yes"! Soon after that the moorhen pecked the long-necked turtle and it promptly dived.
And from my earlier shots I could see that the turtle was well aware of the approaching bird, its long neck was well bent towards the moorhen.
The little pied cormorant ignored them altogether, fetched a stick and climbed on to the floating branch to the right of the scene.

So how many turtles did you count? The correct answer is at the very bottom.
In summary, the protagonists of the pond life were, from the left, little pied cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos, dusky moorhen Gallinula tenebrosa and long-necked turtles Chelodina longicollis,


Friday 18 November 2011

Superb fairy-wren

Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, Eastern Australia

Several males in their full breeding regalia were strutting around the paths, briskly. Then they go back to a brown plumage, like the females.  
A delightful sight. I have decided to make a mosaic with some of the shots.
Superb fairy wren males

In Forrestdale, Western Australia, there were some blue wrens as well, a different species. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to take any shots. Too fast. So I was extremely pleased with the above shots.

Wattlebird on banksia

Kings Park, Perth

Wattlebird feeding on a scarlet banksia Banksia coccinea
This photo was taken in the Botanical Garden bed dedicated to these remarkable plants. They are related to the proteas of South Africa, compare with the post about sunbirds,
They were all on my list of things to see ;-)

Other links:

Thursday 17 November 2011

Weaving lizard

Kings Park, Perth
Lizard on a grass tree

This lizard was in the dead leaves below the crown of that grass tree. Bryony Fremlin tells me that it is a Fence Skink Cryptoblepharus buchananii. 
I love grass trees,, they are the most iconic plant of Western Australia. This time we were lucky to see them in bloom.

Ringtail possum

Busseldon, Western Australia

Ringtail possum feeding on apples
This possum table was set up to distract them from an ornamental grapevine nearby. They can even eat the blossoms!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Seagrass beach balls

Geographe Bay, Busselton, Western Australia

We were taken to this bay by Ralph Fremlin to see its huge seagrass balls.

Ralph and David Fremlin by a large seagrass ball

They were truly enormous. As you can see beach was covered by a thick mat of seagrasses, only a little bit of it had balled. Surely, this must have happened by the action of the waves well before they landed.
Seagrass ball  plus 5 cm ruler
Close-up of a bit of seagrass found underneath the ball
  The interesting thing was that this beach also had much smaller fibreballs, see below.

Fiberglass balls with a 5 cm ruler

  These are probably Posidonia australis, a much finner seagrass than the above one.

The amazing thing is that I have found identical seagrass balls on a Mediterranean beach near Murcia, Spain. Those were P. oceanica

Now I must find out what is then seagrass in the huge balls, obviously different.

Pet emus

Forrestdale, Western Australia
Broody male emu
This pet male emu somehow went broody and has been sitting on an empty nest. Alas, he has no partner.
The incubation period takes 8 weeks during which the male does not feed or drink. Then, they also look after the chicks. But being a pet has its advantages, he is being fed by David James, pictured above, its owner’s brother.

The female lays up to 15 eggs in about 2-3 weeks and after that has to recover from the mammoth task. Emu eggs are lovely dark green, but go blackish with age - over several years.
They are much smaller than ostrich eggs.

Old ostrich, left, and emu, right, eggs
David James and Bryony Fremlin, our hosts, have a couple of pet emus themselves. Brother and sister now over 30 years old.   
Brother and sister emus
These two nest regularly, but because it is rather tricky to release emus into the wild the government advises pet owners to kill the eggs. And everybody gets upset.
Emus live forever, David said.

Sundews in Western Australia

Anstey-Keane Dampland, Western Australia

Lovely patch of tiny plants growing in a little wet patch well known to David James who guided me to it. 

Drosera pygmaea

Redink sundew Drosera erythrorhiza
This is an old plant, it has bloomed already.

This is my second blog about sundew plants. The first ones to catch my attention were in Table Mountain and David James identified them for me during our visit. I was completely new to Drosera plants!
Also, I'm extremly grateful to him for writing up a list of the plants that we saw in the dampland during our short visit. That way I learned a lot not just about sundews but triggerplants as well. See this blog post.

Triggerplants in Western Australia

Anstey-Keane Dampland, Western Australia

Book triggerplant Stylidium calcaratum

If you look closely you will see the 'trigger' between the petals on the right hand side, curled up; it is rather feathery at the tip. In fact, I've learned that it is the fusion of both male and female reproductive organs which develop at different stages to avoid self-pollination. The trigger will flip over a visiting insect and that way the pollen will travel to another plant or/and get pollinated in the process. Then the trigger will flip back to its resting place.
This is the most amazing mechanism. These flowers are very touchy and people have taken videos, do search around...
I took pictures of another trigger plant is the same reserve.

Stylidium perula
Not such a good picture but the trigger is there, curled to the left. But if you look closely at the bud in the above picture you can see shiny specs on it and along its stem. These are special glands and they can trap small insects which the plant will digest. This is called protocarnivory; see here for a detailed explanation
This type of carnivory is another fascinating fact about these sophisticated plants. It reminded me about recent research with teasels. Apparently they can digest the plants that fall in the water accumulated at the base of their leaves; another kind of carnivory. 

It is no coincidence that triggerplants share their habitat with sundews - very poor moist soil - and we saw them there as well: two species: the pygmy Drosera and the redink sundew.
I would have overlooked them all if it weren't for Bryony Fremlin and David James who gave us a guided tour of this wonderful dampland. As it is, afterwards I have had a lot of fun 'discovering' triggerplants and blogging about it :-) 

Other links: for a series of excellent close-up pictures of the S. perula trigger by Jean Hort - for a great collection  of trigger plant photos - for serious botanical information
Carnivory in the Teasel Dipsacus fullonum — The Effect of Experimental Feeding on Growth and Seed Set

Monday 14 November 2011

Jacarandas in full bloom

Melville, Johannesburg

Street lined with jacaranda trees
This suburb of Jo’burg had streets lined with jacaranda trees Jacaranda mimosifolia; stunning views. I managed to take the above photo with David’s help, not just for warning me about incoming cars but for safety as well. It was not advisable to use cameras or look like a tourist.

Afterwords we went for a walk in the Melville Koppies Nature Reserve; it was rather barren but the view to the city was sprinkled with the deep blue jacaranda blossom.

View from a barren hill top
 It just shows how important it is to plant trees in urban areas, one can hardly see the houses!

I’ve already mentioned these trees in the Graaf-Reinet entry; they come from Latin America but seem to do rather well all over the world.  For instance, nearby Pretoria is even better; it is called the jacaranda capital of the world. 
Also, there are lots in Lisbon and my friend Fernando Catarino tells me that their peak blossom is timed for the 10th of June, perhaps getting earlier.   
And, right now, in Perth there were some very fine trees in bloom; the ground below was a carpet of flowers. Amazing how they can cope with its harsh climate and poor soil.

Sundews on Table Mountain

Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

In the boggy areas I spotted some bright rosettes. Some were about to bloom, see below. 

These plants are probably the Cape sundew Drosera capensis, but this needs confirmation

They are carnivorous plants. Below is a close-up of  the rosettes of another sundew species.

Close-up of  the Peninsula Sundew Drosera cuneifolia  

Sunday 13 November 2011

Wild banana trees

Cape Town,

Wild banana trees are not bananas, at all. They belong to different families and are only called like that because their leaves are fairly similar.

These trees caught my eye because a) they looked like a very inferior kind of the traveller’s tree Ravelana madagascariensis, a very handsome native of Madagascar which is planted as an ornamental in the tropics, b) they were in bloom. As you can see in the above photo the flowers are huge and similar to the bird of paradise Sterlitzia; but not so elegant. They belong to that same family, Strelitziaceae.

Bird-of-paradise flower
Banana flowers aren’t in the least like that. Also when after they fruit they soon die, which is not the case with the so called wild banana. They belong to the Musaceae family.

Thursday 10 November 2011


Western Cape, South Africa

Aggregation of Cape lappet moth caterpillars

We found these amazing caterpillars during one of our rest stops along the road from Knysna to Cape Town, they were at the base of a gum tree. Some were on their own but others were in a cluster with their heads down like in the picture above.

I have sought expert help for their identification and thanks to Marin Villet, Steve Woodhall, Kristin Williams and John Joannou, I now know that it could be one of two species: Eutricha capensis (Linnaeus) or E. bifascia (Walker).  The genus was formerly Pachypasa. See below.

Photo courtesy of John Joannou
They belong to the Family Lasiocampidae which has many examples of caterpillar sociality - some are tent caterpillars. And this might explain my observed agregations. Their larvae have been found feeding on 24 species, indigenous and exotic, including various acacias, pines, and eucalyptus. See
All this makes kind of sense because at the base of that Eucalyptus there was a lot of their frass. See below.

Frass from the Cape lappet moth caterpillars


Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden, Cape Town

Male red breasted sunbird on a pincushion
The pincushion is a Leucospermum conocarpodendron,, a Proteacea,, the plants that I so much wanted to see!
The birds were nectaring just hummingbirds do in the Americas.

Later, on Table Mountain, we saw them feeding on insects, see a female below.

Female red breasted sunbird on a Proteacea shrub

Monday 7 November 2011

Grey squirrels in Cape Town!

The Company's Garden, Cape Town

Grey squirrel and pigeons

One could well believe that this photo had been taken in the UK instead of South Africa. In fact, it was rather shocking to see grey squirrels so far south!
The Company’s Garden has some very large oaks and they go for the acorns when in season, otherwise they were daring little beggars, one of them even climbed up my leg!

Later, we saw them again in the Kirstenbosch botanical garden. Apparently, there they are very fond of the seeds of Strelitzia regina ‘Mandela’s Gold’, a yellow flowering strelitzia. This variant from the normal orange flowers took 20 years of selecting and hand-pollinating to develop. There they have to cover up the seeds with a cap of fine-mesh wire, otherwise the squirrels will eat the lot.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Knysna dwarf chameleon

Male Bradypodion damaranum

In Knysna, Western Cape, South Africa, local people have a superstition about owls and chameleons; they believe that they bring death so when they find one, they kill it.
Our cousin, Andrée Masdoorp, who is quite good at rearing chameleons, has an arrangement with her gardener: when he finds one he brings it to her; that is he pops it on plant by her pond. So she checks it daily. The male below was a fresh arrival. Sorry that I left out its tail…
They can measure up to 18 cm, rather large for a dwarf chameleon.
Then Andrée adds it to her menagerie and eventually releases their offspring back into the wild. 
Below is a pregnant female.
Pregnant female Bradypodion damaranum
 For more about this highly localised species visit

Arum lily frog

Arum lily frog in its favourite day perch

This arum lily frog , who spends the days looking like a pebble which has somehow got into a white arum lily flower, and (we are told by Andrée Masdoorp) runs up and down the window panes at night on little red feet.
 It could be Hyperolius horstockii.

Arum lilies Zantedeschia aethiopica are, of course, indigenous in the area. They are one of those South African plants which have established themselves in various continents.